New weapon for weather forecasters

A real-time, three-dimensional weather visualisation system developed at the Georgia Institute of Technology may help weather researchers improve the timeliness and accuracy of forecasting severe storms.

Researchers led by the Georgia Institute of Technology are developing a computer-based system to view, interrogate and analyse large observational data sets to help forecasting severe storms.

Data is said to include information from radar stations, severe weather detection software, high-resolution weather models, geographic information systems, satellites and aerial photography.

All of this data will be merged in a platform called the Virtual Geographic Information System (VGIS) and will run on a personal computer and be viewed on a monitor or large-screen projection.

The visualisation system and high-resolution weather models may help forecasters accurately predict general areas of severe weather up to six hours in advance, said Bill Ribarsky of the Georgia Tech College of Computing.

‘This system will provide a rich trove of information for analysts and researchers,’ Ribarsky said. Researchers will not only be able to visualise information in a new way, they will also be able to merge and analyse multiple data sets to study similarities in storm structures in severe weather events.

For example, they may merge historical touchdown data from all tornadoes in a certain geographical area to help visually answer the climatological question about whether Georgia has a ‘tornado alley.’

Similarly, researchers may be able to better understand the impacts of human activities on severe weather in that researchers could use the visualisation system integrated with flood extent modelling to allow software predictions of the extent of a flood from a river overflowing its banks into a local area.

‘Up to now, all we’ve been able to get is a flood height (that is, when a river will crest),’ Ribarsky explained. ‘But that doesn’t tell you anything about what might be flooded. We will be able to predict the extent of the flood – what parts of the community may be affected, like whether a power plant or chemical plant might be flooded and convey the information to the public in an easily understood, graphical manner.’

An initial version of the visualisation system is already receiving north Georgia radar data via the Georgia Tech Severe Storms Research Centre (SSRC), which gets its feed from the US National Weather Service.

The data is processed by a National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) severe weather software program, which indicates storm signatures and then automatically transferred to the visualisation system for display.

Researchers are working now to integrate a high-resolution weather model, which can forecast conditions for areas as small as one to four square kilometres and expect to complete the project within two years.

‘Once we have it all there, we will be able to show for the first time these dynamic volumes of information in this visualisation system, basically as the data are received,’ Ribarsky said. ‘This has not been done in 3D before in a time-dependent format.’

Nick Faust, one of the lead researchers, added that the ability to look at storms in three dimensions in real time will give researchers new insight into the 3D nature of storm development, and that information will result in better severe weather detection software.